Experiences during childhood may have a lasting impact. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics followed youth from three major metropolitan areas to determine if bullying had long-term effects on substance use.
“Youth who experienced more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade had a greater likelihood of substance use by 10th grade,” Dr. Valerie Earnshaw, the study’s lead author, told DrugRehab.com. “That included alcohol, marijuana and tobacco use. We also found that depressive symptoms helped to explain that association.”
The study does not prove that bullying causes depression or that depressive symptoms lead to substance use, but it does show a strong link between experiences and behaviors. Earnshaw and her colleagues were surprised at the strength of their findings, which supported the association between peer victimization and increased use of three substances. Trends were similar for boys and girls.
Other studies on bullying and harassment are investigating why some children who are bullied use drugs and why others abstain.
Previous research on bullying and drug abuse has shown that people involved in bullying behavior are more likely to use drugs than people who aren’t exposed to bullying. Bullies themselves are more likely to use substances of abuse than bully victims.
Many studies have examined the experiences of youth during one point in time. Earnshaw and her team were interested in examining the long-term experiences of youth.
Her study used data from a survey sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those researchers followed students from Los Angeles County, Houston and Birmingham, Alabama.
From fifth grade to 10th grade, nearly 4,300 youth answered questions about their behaviors and experiences on three separate occasions.
“Youth who were experiencing more peer victimization in fifth grade were reporting more depressive symptoms by seventh grade, and those depressive symptoms were associated with greater likelihood of using alcohol, marijuana and tobacco in 10th grade,” Earnshaw said.
The study supports the theory that some people use alcohol or other drugs to self-medicate unpleasant feelings. Students who were victimized in fifth grade may have developed feelings of depression in seventh grade and started using substances to cope with those feelings by 10th grade.
Early teenage years are a significant time period in a person’s life. In general, rates of depression go up as people enter adolescence, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Teens are also more likely to use alcohol or other drugs as they get older. Compared with eighth-graders, more than twice as many 10th-graders reported current use of any illicit drug in 2016, per the Monitoring the Future Study.
“Rates of bullying tend to peak in elementary school and then decrease,” Earnshaw said. “On the other hand, substance use tends to go up over time.”
In Earnshaw’s study, children who had been victimized were much more likely to use drugs than children who hadn’t been victimized by peers. Children who said they weren’t 100 percent heterosexual or were not attracted only to members of the opposite sex were also more likely to be bullied in fifth grade and use substances in 10th grade.
“A lot of young people by fifth grade may not have developed a strong identity about their sexual orientation, but by 10th grade some of them have,” Earnshaw said. “We think that maybe these youth were displaying some counter-gender behaviors as children, and their peers might have been picking on them or bullying them for that.”
In 2015, members of the LGBTQ+ population were more than twice as likely as heterosexual Americans to use illicit drugs, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Previous research indicates that sexual minorities may use alcohol or other drugs to cope with bullying, harassment and homophobia.
Earnshaw hopes the study’s findings will help pediatricians, educators and parents understand the impact of peer victimization on youth. She’s also interested in studying why victimization impacts children more than adults and whether teens and adults become more resilient to the effects of bullying as they age.